By David Hegg
Imagine a highly placed official comes into the press room, steps up to the podium, and begins. “Good afternoon, I’ve come here to let you all know that, after traveling the country making promises, and deploying thousands of government employees to develop and initiate hundreds of study groups, regulations, and programs, it is now beyond any doubt that I was wrong. I was wrong in my understanding of the problems, wrong in my solutions, and very wrong in spending billions to make things better. In reality, things are worse – much worse – and I just came here to tell you I was wrong. Thank you, and now I’ll take whatever questions you have.”
Can you imagine a day when anything close to that would actually take place? I can’t, for one glaring reason: In too many ways and too many places, our society has repudiated repentance. What we teach our children we refuse to practice as adults.
Remember when you were a child and you did or said something inappropriate? Remember what your parent said? “You tell Grandma you’re sorry, and that you won’t do that again!” In case you’ve forgotten, that’s what’s known as repentance.
Repentance comes from the Greek word metanoia. Its meaning is simple: a change of attitude and action. To repent is to acknowledge wrongdoing without excuses, and as well, to declare one’s intention to think and act correctly in the future. It is more than saying “I’m sorry and if I had it to do over again, I’d do it differently.” That’s not repentance, that’s political spin in hopes of some public relations repair. Repentance is “I did it, it was wrong, I accept any necessary consequences, and I’ll never do that again.”
But behind the disappearance of repentant attitudes in our society today is something even more sinister. Sadly, the reason we don’t hear many repentant voices is simply because no one is ever wrong. Yes, mistakes were made, but not by me! It was the other guy, right?
No one seems to be responsible anymore. When policies are put in place, and the results go horribly wrong, and people’s lives are dramatically diminished, it is simply astounding that those responsible don’t have enough integrity to stand up and say, “We were wrong!”
The preacher in me needs to give a short sermon, so please indulge me. Here it is: If you lie, you need to repent of the lie and admit to those affected that you lied. And, you need to quit lying and become a person of truth, no matter the cost. If you act dishonorably you need to repent of your lack of integrity, your arrogance-driven “devil may care” attitude and fix the damage you’ve done. If you are a mean person who treats others like refuse you need to repent and work to repair your heart so you can become a useful contributor to society. And I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
And why this insistence on repentance? Again, it’s simple. Repentance says more about a person than almost any other character trait, attitude, or action. Repentance demands several key things, which, when bundled together, demonstrate the kind of character we all want in our children, and should demand of ourselves. Consider the following:
The root of repentance is self-honesty. Rick Warren has said, “Every sin starts with a lie we tell ourselves.” A refusal to repent evidences that fact that you still believe what you now know is actually a lie you’ve been telling yourself for some time. Repentance says I’ve finally told myself the truth.
Repentance is also an act of true humility, something else that is being evaporated out of our society to our great shame. As well, repentance is an act of real courage motivated in great measure by love and concern for those who have been harmed. Lastly, repentance is hard, very hard, and yet the humiliation of stepping up to admit the truth and take the blame certainly creates a lasting deterrent to future dishonorable, deceitful, and damaging attitudes and actions.
But repentance has become dangerous in our world, and that has led to its demise. Today’s tribalism has created a whole new ethic when it comes to right and wrong that has eliminated any incentive to demonstrate repentance. The truth is, power now depends on never admitting failure or anything close to it for fear of tipping the scales in favor of your opponents.
With apologies to Erich Segal and “Love Story,” sadly today it is more true that “power means never having to say you’re sorry!”
And while the powerful certainly live by that rule, it’s just plain wrong. Our children know it, and so should we.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.